BLACKSMITHS surfer Michelle Donoghoe carried Newcastle's hopes on the pro tour for a full decade from 1986 to 1996, putting her smack in the middle of the contention over the treatment of women at the time, chronicled in the important new documentary Girls Can't Surf.
A winner of Newcastle's Surfest in her rookie year on tour, Donoghoe's other contest highlights include a Coke Classic win in Sydney and a second place at Bells Beach in Victoria to her good mate Pauline Menczer, who is back in the media, rediscovered as "the former world champion driving a bus in Byron Bay" on the back of the movie.
"I was winning almost all the heat, but she got me at the end," Donoghoe said at the weekend, about that Bells final held in small waves at the Rincon break.
"I got a bell trophy for coming second. I keep it in the bar in the shed out the back. It's a good conversation piece."
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Donoghoe has more than a passing interest in the events portrayed in GCS, because as an "out" gay woman on tour, she was on the targeted side of a political split she has no doubt impacted on results at the time.
"I had a judge come up to me one night at the end of year tour ball and call me a dyke, saying 'no gay woman is ever going to win a world title'.
"There was a lot of homophobia and I'd had enough by the time I finished the tour.
"In fact for 20 years I really took no interest in what was happening in pro surfing. It's only the past few years I've gotten interested again."
Donoghoe threw herself into work and study after her surfing career wound down.
With a degree in interior design and a masters in industrial relations, she has built a career with furniture maker Ikea and lives at Maroubra with her partner Rebecca Mullins and their son Harry, 14, and daughter Frankie, 13.
Her first major sponsor was Newcastle board brand Pacific Dreams, founded by Roy Lee.
"He's my uncle. Roy's wife Janet and my mum Joan are twins," Donoghoe says.
Lee and others remember her as an aggressive surfer, ahead of her time. She was world tour rookie of the year in 1986 and peaked at #5 in 1991, among a run of years in the top 10.
"You learn to get organised from a very young age," she says.
"I think that's had a lot to do with the drive I have had in life ever since."
She says she never expected to go as far as she did after learning to surf at Blacksmiths with her surfer father Phil Donoghoe.
"Dad founded Nine Mile Boardriders at Blacksmiths," she says.
"But there weren't many girls there at the time and I didn't really come through a club system, I just started competing.
"I beat Kim Mearig in the semi-finals at Surfest in 1986 and she was world champion at the time and that just launched me onto the tour, and I was there from 16 to 26.
"It was unbelievable to win Surfest like that, in my home town. Looking back, it was a pretty big thing."
She said the existing split tier system of the elite World Championship Tour and the larger World Qualifying Series was introduced in her final year on the road. Before that it was just one tour.
The prize money was thin and Donoghoe says that even with sponsors' support, most of her winnings went straight into surfing and travel.
"It would go towards trips to surf somewhere good between events," she says. "But it was such an incredible lifestyle, it wasn't about the money."
She still surfs - "although not as often as I'd like".
Both children learned to surf, having lessons with Donoghoe's tour contemporary Pam Burridge, who is featured in GCS and who runs a surf school at Mollymook.
"Surfing was a huge part of my life and always will be," Donoghe says.
"It's just such a beautiful thing to do."
- Our Top 10 countdown resumes on Friday, with our #1 picks on Saturday.
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